On a blistering hot afternoon five years ago, we stumbled into Fatima’s guesthouse – she embraced me (after we’d negotiated the room price) and we happily laid down our bags. Returning the following year, we got to know this large motherly Goan and her extended family who live on the first floor of the guesthouse, together with a larger than life portrait of suffering Jesus Christ filling the entire wall of the entry way. As well as the guesthouse, Fatima and her husband “Uncle” (no one can remember his real name), own Fatima’s mini mart, Fatima’s general store which serves the cheapest and best thali’s in town, and undoubtedly other properties we don’t know about. Given her large size, personality and generosity, Fatima is aptly known as the “Queen of Agonda.” Most of the returning “regulars” initially started out at Fatima’s and even though, like us, have moved on to other accommodation, she remembers and welcomes back each year. So it’s no surprise that Fatima’s birthday is a huge extravaganza to which everyone is invited. And this year, her 59th, excelled other years – there were fireworks, hot air balloons, a lavish buffet and an entertainment program. Young Goan girls dressed in saris, flowers in their hair and bracelets on their ankles danced to Bollywood tunes; then a dark skinned muscular man leapt into the arena, brandishing poles of fire and performed an amazingly daring dance. (Supposedly an Iranian, he lives in Sweden and has been coming to Agonda for many years.) As color, fire and music illuminated the dark courtyard, we felt as if we had happened upon the courtly entertainment of a Rajput palace many centuries ago. Then everyone feasted and danced until long after we had retired. How can they top this for next year, Fatima’s 60th? We shall see!
Although we don’t buy many clothes, we’ve befriended some of the shopkeepers selling their wares to the tourists along the edge of the road we walk back and forth on daily. Girija is a beautiful young Hindu girl who at the age of 25, has already been married twice, lost both husbands and now lives alone with her sweet six year old daughter. Girija’s first husband left her three months after she gave birth. HE DID NOT WANT A DAUGHTER. Although things are changing, having a daughter is still a liability in many parts of India.
Last year she had remarried. Handsome and charming, Manju was from Badami in Karnataka. He had another wife and child there but that’s not unusual in the Hindu community. And everyone seemed happy with the arrangement. Everyday he and Girija sat outside the stall, greeting the passing tourists, and were obviously in love. This year we returned and Girija sat alone – she was different, uncharacteristically subdued. Her effervescence missing. “Aap kasie hain?” I greeted her. (How are you?) “We are only two now, not three.” she responded flatly. I imagined her child had been stricken by some fatal childhood disease. But no, it was Manju! Even though in the beginning the wife in Badami was quite happy with the arrangement, her parents were not and they continued to poison her mind against Girija. And on one fatal trip back home to Badami, Manju was met with incredible hostility resulting in his murder by the in-laws.
Alone and heartbroken, but with the help of friends and family Girija’s trying to move on. Despite her charm and beauty she’s not only divorced but also widowed – two counts against her. In Hindu society’s eyes she’s now damaged goods. At only 25, she laments. “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? Is this my fate?” She is still young and beautiful – many local young men will find her an excellent wife.” Meanwhile, she continues to get up early each morning, open her shop and string flimsy cotton dresses and balloon pants across the entry way to entice shoppers. The rhythm carries on, but she’s alone.
Lakshmi owns and manages her boutique along with her two eldest children helping some of the time. Always dressed in a beautiful sari, she came to Agonda when very young from further up the Goan coast.
Coming from a tribal community, her mother still wears the traditional colorful costume. Tribal people make up half the population of India and unlike Hindus and Moslems the women have equal social status with men which explains a lot about Lakshmi’s demeanor. One afternoon she tells us about her childhood: “My father died of alcohol abuse still in his mid twenties when 1 was seven years old 15 days later my mother gave birth to another child, her third daughter. We had no money and because I was the eldest I had to help. I used to sew, decorating little hats, bags and miniskirts with mirrors and embroidery, much like the tribal costumes. One day, my uncle slapped me in the face and ordered “Go sell to the tourists!” “But how can I? I don’t speak English.” Nevertheless, she went to the beach daily, sewing her garments and eventually tourists approached her. They would ask, “How much is this”…etc? They taught her English, and as she learned she also taught her siblings.
Like her mother who was married at eleven, Lakshmi’s marriage was arranged when she was thirteen – and soon after she had a child. At twenty, she was mother to four children, and decided to have a hysterectomy. She had heard of the pill but opted for surgery. Her husband seems a good man genuinely fond of his wife. Today, at thirty-five, Lakshmi sits outside her shop, with the air of a woman who has worked hard and now deserves to move more slowly, calling upon her children to help her in the shop. Gerard told her, “I’ve never seen anyone sit so comfortably in a plastic chair!” She sat serenely as if on a throne of feather cushions, her sari draped gracefully over her legs, her arms folded. She replied, “I’ve had many years practice!” The eldest daughter, stunningly beautiful stands sullenly beside her mother in the store. She wants to be part of the modern world and doesn’t seem to appreciate her mother’s forward thinking in not imposing marriage on her yet. The difference between the generations is reflected in the women’s dress: her mother still dresses in tribal, Lakshmi in her saris, and her daughter in contemporary western clothes when she can.